Three groups of young students, clustered around Oak Park Public Library tables on a recent Thursday morning, represent a new approach to bridging the community's stubbornly persistent educational achievement gap.
The Rising Readers program is the result of three community entities joining forces this summer to help low-performing Oak Park students in third, fourth and fifth grade to close the gap.
The achievement gap refers to the consistently lower standardized test score averages of minority children, who often come from lower-income backgrounds with less access to educational resources.
Rising Readers is an expansion of a program Frances Kraft, a fifth-grade teacher at Holmes Elementary School in Oak Park, runs throughout the school year. Kraft's program, called Power of Partnerships, brings low-achieving students in for extra help after school.
Kraft has expanded the offshoot summer reading program's enrollment from last summer's initial test group of nine students, third through fifth grade, to 30 students this summer. The expansion was made possible by additional assistance Kraft has received from two outside groups, the Community Leadership Program and the Oak Park Public Library, as well as generous support from the community and area businesses.
The Community Leadership Program, which is sponsored by the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation and the Brennan School of Business at Dominican University, played a large role in securing the necessary funding for the Rising Readers program, according to Jessica Mackinnon, director of public information at Dominican University. CLP's goal is to enroll and educate members of the local community on large issues that the villages are currently dealing with. The summer reading program was one of CLP's four community outreach projects for the year.
Additionally, the Oak Park Public Library, through Teen Services Librarian Rachael Bild, offered space and teen volunteers from surrounding communities to help with the program.
Bild described the combined effort as "synergy."
"I feel so lucky that everybody was in the right place at the right time to make this happen," she said.
The Rising Readers program meets in three library locations around Oak Park, including the main branch, every Thursday from June 12 to July 11, and currently enrolls students from Holmes, Beye and Irving schools.
Program enrollment is determined by students' standardized test scores and teacher recommendations. The program focuses on students who score in the 0 to 25 percentile on MAP and ISAT testing. Kraft said her ultimate goal is to bring students out of the low-testing range, something she has had statistical success with in the past.
Enrolled students are placed in groups of four, supplemented by two teen volunteers and one teacher from the students' schools, according to Kraft. They meet in the library closest to their elementary school, Kraft said.
"We set up the branches close to the home schools so the students and teachers have familiarity," Kraft said. "The [teachers] know the kids [and] the kids know the teens."
Kraft said she created a curriculum that focuses on summer reading because data and studies show students in the third- to fifth-grade range tend to lose reading skills over the summer. She also said the summer reading program offers an opportunity to work with students on a variety of educational subjects in a way that can help them succeed and excel in future schooling.
The Rising Readers curriculum uses the Magic Treehouse book series and uses the stories as a springboard into other activities in subjects like math, science and social studies.
Students recently created and tested paper airplanes as part of a unit on Leonardo da Vinci. According to Kraft, the kinesthetic portion of the learning, coupled with the need to measure the planes' flight distance and perform calculations such as an average of all flights, kept students learning while still having fun.
The program's success is largely possible because of a supportive community, Kraft said, including the Community Foundation and area businesses such as Trader Joe's and Magic Tree Bookstore, who "really make this happen." The community, she added, seems very aware of the achievement gap and is willing to offer support in trying to fix it.
"The whole sense of community is a beautiful thing," Kraft said.